What is the Qur’an?

cover

Divided into 114 suras (the Arabic for “chapters”) the Qur’an is the sacred scripture of the devout Muslim. It is believed to be the Word of God and therefore constitutes the highest authority by which to regulate one’s life (1). This article will look at the importance that this book has for Muslims, the role it plays in Islamic daily life, and what the Qur’an says about itself in terms of its inspiration and divine status.

General Structure

Every sura, divided into several ayahs (verses), in the Qur’an has a title taken from some phrase or word in the text. All, with the exception of sura 9, begins with the phrase “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” which is called the Basmala. The suras are divided into two categories: the Meccan and the Medinan. The former being revealed to the Prophet while he was in Mecca and the latter in Medina. Further, the suras are not arranged chronologically but rather in terms of size. The larger ones being the earliest and the rest descending in size from there.

Nothing Can Equal the Qur’an

For Muslims, there is no book that is the Qur’an’s equal. It is considered to be the literal words of God that were spoken directly through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, who then repeated the exact same words to his listeners, who in turn memorized or transcribed them. As such, many Muslims believe that its contents are so beautiful and unparalleled that it is impossible for it to be equaled in human communication (17:88).

The Qur’an is also a sacred object of holy veneration and this means that very specific rules must be followed concerning how it is to be handled and used. In some Muslim countries, school children are taught to wash themselves and be in a state of ritual purity before handling it. They are to kiss it three times before opening it and putting it away. There are also times when one cannot or is forbidden to hold or touch the Qur’an. A “man who has just made love to his wife must cleanse himself before handling the sacred text… A woman who is menstruating or has just given birth must wait a prescribed number of days before touching the Qur’an” (2).

The Qur’an must also never be placed on the ground or be left open and unattended lest a demon comes and read it, which would dishonour the book and provide the demon with knowledge of Allah’s Word. The Qur’an must also occupy the highest place above all other books in a home or the mosque and when carried it is never to be held below the waistline. No human being is more important than the Qur’an and those who are seen to dishonour it will face resentment and indignation from fellow Muslims. Underpinning this veneration of Qur’an is that it is closely allied to Allah’s own honour and therefore ought to be treated, handled, and approached appropriately.

Originally composed in Arabic, the Qur’an has since been translated into many languages. However, Muslims do not view these translations as being the true Qur’an and they are viewed as being less reliable than the Arabic text.

The Qur’an is Not to Be Questioned

Questioning the Qur’an for most Muslims on matters of its reliability is forbidden or extremely frowned upon. Questions that could possibly challenge its divine origin, revelation, or the Prophet who is believed to have received the revelation are seen as dishonouring to Allah. Most Muslims hold fast to the belief that God spoke everything to Muhammad and nothing came from the Prophet’s own thinking. The words were then perfectly preserved and collected before the Prophet’s death, and what we have in the Qur’an today is exactly the same as it was when it was revealed to Muhammad. Scholar of Islam Jane Dammen McAuliffe says that,

“From very early times, the accurate transmission of the Qur’an has been a dogma of faith for Muslims. Contemporary Muslims believe, as have their predecessors, that the Qur’an they hear recited today comprises exactly the same words as those revealed to the prophet Muhammad” (3).

Essential to this view is to hold to the Qur’an’s inerrancy, which is to believe that it is without error of any kind because it comes directly from the perfect mind of God. Most Muslims are thus not open to examining its contents critically.

The Qur’an Seeks to Transform the Reader

The Qur’an is believed to possess transformative properties. This means that it is not only a revelation of the truth, but that it seeks to transform the lives of those who read it and hear its message. This is evident in the Qur’an’s array of self-descriptions as “the Guide”, “the Righteous”, the Exhortation, “the Warner”, “the Order”, “the Distinguishing Speech”, etc. It exhorts human beings to live in complete obedience and submission to Allah. Those Muslims who have indeed engaged their holy book critically have produced multivolume commentaries on it. These Muslim scholars conduct their work not with a kind of skepticism and value-free approach one tends to find in many western universities but rather with a great sense of devotion, fervor, and piety. It is a critical engagement that has the goal of being spiritually transforming.

The Qur’an’s Self-Proclaimed Exalted Status 

The Qur’an frequently refers to its exalted status. In some instances, this appears to be so in response to some of Muhammad’s early critics who opposed his revelation. These critics either doubted his revelations or claimed that they were fabrications. As such, a number of the Prophet’s messages were defensive in nature and therefore claimed exalted and divine status. We find such references in the Qur’an calling itself “the Good”, “the Mighty”, “the Inspiration”, “the Wonderful”, “the Exalted”, “the Excellent”, etc., all of which clearly point to its own divine source in Allah. In several verses, the Prophet even challenged his opponents to try and formulate their own piece of writing to match the perfection of the Qur’an (2:23, 11:13). Furthermore, that the Qur’an is sometimes called the “Holy Qur’an” seems to owe itself to Muslims becoming more familiar with Christian claims on their sacred text, such as in the “Holy Bible”. The Qur’an does not refer to itself as holy, although it is not surprising that Muslims would view this description as consistent with some of the Qur’an’s own self-titles. Other ways Muslims refer to their sacred text is as the “Glorious Qur’an”, “the Word of God”, or the “Noble Qur’an.

Who and What Revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet?

Popular Muslim belief is that the angel Jibril brought Allah’s revelations and messages to Muhammad (4). The Prophet himself communicated these words without error to his followers who then memorized and/or copied them onto bones, paper, palm fronds, or stone. These inscriptions had the purpose of maintaining a written record and they were then gathered into a single book, the Qur’an. However, this process was not necessarily so clear. Only in sura 2:91 of the Qur’an do we find the angel Jibril named as the inspiration for the Prophet’s recitations. In another sura we find that it was the Holy Spirit who brought the revelation down from Allah (16:104). According to Q26:193, it was the “faithful spirit” whereas Q53:5 says it was “one terrible in power.” It is not uncommon for Muslims to use the names or messengers of Jibril and Holy Spirit synonymously. Other Islamic texts refer to Jibril as “the Supreme Spirit” and “the Honored Spirit.”

Islamic tradition informs us that Aisha, one of the Prophet’s favourite wives, claimed Muhammad’s earliest revelations were not received through an angel but through dreams (Mishkat 24:5). Aisha claimed that on some occasions the Prophet would be enveloped in a brightness during which Jibril passed on revelation. On other occasions, Muhammad would hear a bell through which he would receive revelation. These experiences would be overwhelming as the Prophet’s entire body would become agitated, his head would bow under pressure, he would sweat profusely, and his face would turn pasty.

Perhaps the most memorable instance of revelation can be found in Q17:1 in an event known as the “ascent.” Here the Prophet was taken to Jerusalem during the twelfth year of his ministry on the back of a flying horse and then ascended through the first seven levels of heaven. Throughout this journey, Muhammad met some of the great prophets and then at the highest level met Allah himself. Allah spoke directly to Muhammad and provided the Prophet instructions concerning prayer. At first, Muslims were instructed to perform the rituals of prayer fifty times per day. However, Moses latter convinced Muhammad that so many prayers would be an immense burden for the people and this motivated the Prophet to bargain with Allah on behalf of the people. After bargaining several times, the prayer was reduced from fifty to just five per day.

It is also important to note that at one stage the Prophet himself had doubts as to the origin or source of his revelation, thinking that he was possessed by an evil spirit. Although there are several reasons presented in Muslim sources as to why the Prophet attempted to kill himself, it seems that his belief that he was possessed by an evil spirit was one of them (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah).

Memorizing and Reciting the Qur’an From a Young Age

For many young Muslims within Islamic majority countries, much time during their educational years is spent learning portions of the Qur’an by heart (5). The Qur’an features prominently in school programs, which also includes studying Islamic doctrine and history. Learning the Qur’an by memory is important especially since it plays an integral  role during prayer rituals in which Muslim recite its contents. McAuliffe says that,

“Small children in many Muslim countries begin their education with Qur’an classes: recitation sessions that start with short passages repeated aloud and committed to memory and move on, eventually, to longer and more complex portions. Oral recitation of verses from the Qur’an forms part of each of the five prayer periods that observant Muslims offer every day. Proper recitation of the Qur’an, particularly when it involves extended sections of the scripture, is not simply a matter of repeating the Arabic words. Rather, it is an elaborate discipline, one that takes years of study and practice to master… learning to recite the Qur’an properly remains the cornerstone of Muslim education. To protect God’s very words by an invariant repetition of them is a responsibility that Muslims take most seriously” (6).

The Qur’an encourages the devout to “repeat the recitation in an unhurried, distinct manner” (72:4) and hearing it properly recited is a very moving experience for Muslims. It is even the case that some Muslims find their livelihood in reading and memorizing this book on important occasions. Some Muslims, known as hafiz, have memorized the entire Qur’an and are the recipients of much respect in their societies. According to one of the Hadith, “The best person among you is he who has learned the Koran and teaches it” (al-Bukhari, 5027). Verses from the Qur’an permeate the daily lives of many Muslims, especially in Muslim nations. They will crop up in conversations, be used to support conclusions, and the outcome of public debates will be determined on who more powerfully uses its text.

The Qur’an and Art

One can not fully appreciate the Qur’an without paying credit to its inspiration behind work within the realm of art and aesthetics. It is important to note that there has been an uneasiness for Muslims when it comes to art given that the Prophet is said to have cursed artists who drew or painted human or animal forms. This was likely a response and reaction to the polytheism of Muhammad’s day, and although Muslims have not necessarily been uniform in their response to these prohibitions throughout their history Islamic culture has proliferated magnificent, intricate designs in the form of geometric patterns and ornamental calligraphy. Calligraphic art can be found on public and municipal buildings, in mosques, holy sights, the home, inscribed on jewelry, and even on some ancient copies of the Qur’an.

References

1. Stowasser, Barbara. 1995. “The Qur’an and Its Meaning.” The Arab Studies Journal 3(1):4-8.

2. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. 2003. “The Persistent Power of the Qur’ān.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 147(4):339-346. p. 342.

3. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. 2003. Ibid. p. 341.

4. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. 2003. Ibid.

5. Ayoub, Mahmoud. 1993. “The Qur’ān Recited.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 27(2):169-179.

6. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. 2003. Ibid. p. 340.

11 comments

  1. […] The Qur’an teaches that God created the universe, the Earth, and life, but since its creation story is not particularly specific, Muslim creationists do not tend to put too much emphasis on the age of the Earth. The Qur’an has a six-day account of creation but the length of a day differs depending on the verse in question: one verse has a day been defined as “a thousand years of what you count” (32:5), elsewhere it “is fifty thousand years” (70:4). A number of features of Islamic creationism have been directly copied from American creationism. According to Edis, the Christian creationism of the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) was easily transplanted into an Islamic context because “creationism mobilizes traditional Abrahamic convictions about the moral significance of the natural world against the threat of social modernity” (7). This highlights the potential of creationism to adapt to local circumstances, including circumstances within Muslim communities. Perhaps the most well-known Muslim creationist is Adnan Oktar who borrows his ideas from the ICR and, more recently, from the Intelligent Design movement in the United States. Oktar’s organization has produced and distributed many anti-evolutionary documentaries, pamphlets, and books. He also has a website where these materials are available for download for free. Oktar’s main problem with evolution is not the age of the Earth it supposes but rather the social and cultural threat it presents in the form of materialism and atheism. It is also common among American creationists to equate evolutionary theory with the atheistic-materialist worldview. According to Hameed, “this is especially a problem when many, perhaps most, in the Muslim world confuse evolution with atheism and consider it inherently against religion” (8). Several other Muslim intellectuals are known to reject evolution, including Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University) and Muzaffar Iqbal (biochemist and editor of the Canadian journal Islam & Science). […]

Leave a Reply to Talal Asad: Religion as a ‘Discursive Tradition’ – Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s